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   Chapter 4 THE YOUNG VINTNER

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 15515

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The Black Eagle (Zum Schwartzen Adler) in the Adlergasse was a prosperous tavern of the second rate. The house was two hundred years old and had been in the Bauer family all that time.

Had Fr?u Bauer, or Fr?u-Wirtin, as she was familiarly called, been masculine, she would have been lightly dubbed Bauer VII. She was a widow, and therefore uncrowned. She had been a widow for many a day, for the novelty of being her own manager had not yet worn off. She was thirty-eight, plump, pretty in a free-hand manner, and wise. It was useless to loll about the English bar where she kept the cash-drawer; it was useless to whisper sweet nothings into her ear; it was more than useless, it was foolish.

"Go along with you, Herr; I wouldn't marry the best man living. I can add the accounts, I can manage. Why should I marry?"

"But marriage is the natural state!"

"Herr, I crossed the frontier long ago, but having recrossed it, never again shall I go back. One crown-forty, if you please. Thank you."

This retort had become almost a habit with the Fr?u-Wirtin; and when a day went by without a proposal, she went to bed with the sense that the day had not been wholly successful.

To-night the main room of the tavern swam in a blue haze of smoke, which rose to the blackened rafters, hung with many and various sausages, cheeses, and dried vegetables. Dishes clattered, there was a buzzing of voices, a scraping of feet and chairs, a banging of tankards, altogether noisy and cheerful. The Fr?u-Wirtin preferred waitresses, and this preference was shared by her patrons. They were quicker, cleaner; they remembered an order better; they were not always surreptitiously emptying the dregs of tankards on the way to the bar, as men invariably did. Besides, the barmaid was an English institution, and the Fr?u-Wirtin greatly admired that race, though no one knew why. The girls fully able to defend themselves, and were not at all diffident in boxing a smart fellow's ears. They had a rough wit and could give and take. If a man thought this an invitation and tried to take a kiss, he generally had his face slapped for his pains, and the Fr?u-Wirtin was always on the side of her girls.

The smoke was so thick one could scarcely see two tables away, and if any foreigner chanced to open a window there was a hubbub; windows were made for light, not air. There were soldiers, non-commissioned officers-for the fall maneuvers brought many to Dreiberg-farmers and their families, and the men of the locality who made the Black Eagle a kind of socialist club. Socialism was just taking hold in those days, and the men were tremendously serious and secretive regarding it, as it wasn't strong enough to be popular with governments which ruled by hereditary might and right.

Gretchen came in, a little better dressed than in the daytime, the change consisting of coarse stockings and shoes of leather, of which she was correspondingly proud.

"Will you want me, Fr?u-Wirtin, for a little while to-night?" she asked.

"Till nine. Half a crown as usual."

Gretchen sought the kitchen and found an apron and cap. These half-crowns were fine things to pick up occasionally, for it was only upon occasions that she worked at the Black Eagle.

In an obscure corner sat the young vintner. He had finished his supper and was watching and scrutinizing all who came in. His face brightened as he saw the goose-girl; he would have known that head anywhere, whether he saw the face or not. He wanted to go to her at once, but knew this action would not be wise.

In the very corner itself, his back to the vintner's, and nothing but the wall to look at, was the old man in tatters and patches, the mountaineer who possessed a Swiss watch and gave golden coins to goose-girls. He was busily engaged in gnawing the leg of a chicken. Between times he sipped his beer, listening.

Carmichael had forgotten some papers that day. He had dined early at the hotel and returned at once to the consulate. He was often a visitor at the Black Eagle. The beer was sweet and cool. So, having pocketed his papers, he was of a mind to carry on a bit of badinage with Fr?u Bauer. As he stepped into the big hall, in his evening clothes, he was as conspicuous as a passing ship at sea.

"Good evening, Fr?u-Wirtin."

"Good evening, your Excellency." She was quite fluttered when this fine young man spoke to her. He was the only person who ever caused her embarrassment, even though temporary. There was always a whimsical smile on his lips and in his eyes, and Fr?u Bauer never knew exactly how to take him. "What is on your mind?" brightly.

"Many things. You haven't aged the least since last I saw you."

"Which was day before yesterday!"

"Not any further back than that?"

"Not an hour."

She turned to make change, while Carmichael's eyes roved in search of a vacant chair. He saw but one.

"The goose-girl?" he murmured suddenly. "Is Gretchen one of your waitresses?"

"She comes in once in a while. She's a good girl and I'm glad to help her," Fr?u Bauer replied.

"I do not recollect having seen her here before."

"That is because you rarely come at night."

Gretchen carried a tray upon which steamed a vegetable stew. She saw Carmichael and nodded.

"I shall be at yonder table," he said indicating the vacant chair. "Will you bring me a tankard of brown Ehrensteiner?"

"At once, Herr."

Carmichael made his way to the table. Across the room he had not recognized the vintner, but now he remembered. He had crowded him against a wall two or three days before.

"This seat is not reserved, Herr?" he asked pleasantly, with his hand on the back of the chair.

"No." There was no cordiality in the answer. The vintner turned back the lid of his stein and drank slowly.

Carmichael sat down sidewise, viewing the scene with never-waning interest. These German taverns were the delight of his soul. Everybody was so kindly and orderly and hungry. They ate and drank like persons whose consciences were not overburdened. From the corner of his eye he observed that the vintner was studying him. Now this vintner's face was something familiar. Carmichael stirred his memory. It was not in Dreiberg that he had seen him before. But where?

Gretchen arrived with the tankard which she sat down at Carmichael's elbow.

"Will you not join me, Herr?" he invited.

"Thank you," said the vintner, without hesitation.

He smiled at Gretchen and she smiled at him. Carmichael smiled at them both tolerantly.

"What will you be drinking?"

"Brown," said the vintner.

Gretchen took up the empty tankard and made off. The eyes of the two men followed her till she reached the dim bar, then their glances swung round and met. Carmichael was first to speak, not because he was forced to, but because it was his fancy at that moment to give the vintner the best of it.

"She is a fine girl."

"Yes," tentatively.

"She is the handsomest peasant I ever saw or knew."

"You know her?" There was a spark in the vintner's eyes.

"Only for a few days. She interests me." Carmichael produced a pipe and lighted it.

"Ah, yes, the pretty peasant girl always interests you gentlemen." There was a note of bitterness. "Did you come here to seek her?"

"This is the first time I ever saw her here. And let me add," evenly, "that my interest in her is not of the order you would infer. She is good and patient and brave, and my interest in her is impersonal. It is not necessary for me to make any explanations, but I do so."

"Pardon me!" The vintner was plainly abashed.

"Granted. But you, you seem to possess a peculiar interest."

The vintner flushed. "I have that right," with an air which rather mystified Car

michael.

"That explains everything. I do not recollect seeing you before in the Black Eagle."

"I am from the north; a vintner, and there is plenty of work here in the valleys late in September."

"The grape," mused Carmichael. "You will never learn how to press it as they do in France. It is wine there; it is vinegar this side of the Rhine."

"France," said the vintner moodily. "Do you think there will be any France in the future?"

Carmichael laughed. "France is an incurable cosmic malady; it will always be. It may be beaten, devastated, throttled, but it will not die."

"You are fond of France?"

"Very."

"Do you think it wise to say so here?"

"I am the American consul; nobody minds my opinions."

"The American consul," repeated the vintner.

Gretchen could now be seen, wending her return in and out among the clustering tables. She set the tankards down, and Carmichael put out a silver crown.

"And do not bother about the change."

"Are all Americans rich?" she asked soberly. "Do you never keep the change yourselves?"

"Are all Americans rich?" she asked, soberly.

"Not when we are in our Sunday clothes."

"Then it is vanity." Gretchen shook her head wisely.

"Mine is worth only four coppers to-night," he said.

The vintner laughed pleasantly. Gretchen looked into his eyes, and an echo found haven in her own.

Carmichael thirstily drank his first tankard, thinking: "So this vintner is in love with our goose-girl? Confound my memory! It never failed me like this before. I would give twenty crowns to know where I have seen him. It's only the time and place that bothers me, not the face. A fine beer," he said aloud, holding up the second tankard.

The vintner raised his; there was an unconscious grace in the movement. A covert glance at his hand satisfied Carmichael in regard to one thing. He might be a vintner, but the hand was as soft and well-kept as a woman's, for all that it was stained by wind and sunshine. A handsome beggar, whoever and whatever he was. But a second thought disturbed him. Could a man with hands like these mean well toward Gretchen? He was a thorough man of the world; he knew innoence at first glance, and Gretchen was both innocent and unworldly. To the right man she might be easy prey. Never to a man like Colonel von Wallenstein, whose power and high office were alike sinister to any girl of the peasantry; but a man in the guise of her own class, of her own world and people, here was a snare Gretchen might not be able to foresee. He would watch this fellow, and at the first sign of an evil-Carmichael's muscular brown hands opened and shut ominously. The vintner did not observe this peculiar expression of the hands; and Carmichael's face was bland.

A tankard, rapping a table near-by, called Gretchen to her duties. There was something reluctant in her step, in the good-by glance, in the sudden fall of the smiling lips.

"She will make some man a good wife," said Carmichael.

The vintner scowled at his tankard.

"He is not sure of her," thought Carmichael. Aloud he said: "What a funny world it is!"

"How?"

"Gretchen is beautiful enough to be a queen, and yet she is merely a Hebe in a tavern."

"Hebe?" suspiciously. The peasant is always suspicious of anything he doesn't understand.

"Hebe was a cup-bearer to the mythological gods in olden times," Carmichael explained. He had set a trap, but the vintner had not fallen into it.

"A fairy-story." The vintner nodded; he understood now.

Carmichael's glance once more rested on the vintner's hand. He would lay another trap.

"What happened to her?"

"Oh," said Carmichael, "she spilled wine on a god one day, and they banished her."

"It must have been a rare vintage."

"I suppose you are familiar with all valleys. Moselle?"

"Yes. That is a fine country."

The old man in tatters sat erect in his chair, but he did not turn his head.

"You have served?"

"A little. If I could be an officer I should like the army." The vintner reached for his pipe which lay on the table.

"Try this," urged Carmichael, offering his pouch.

"This will be good tobacco, I know." The vintner filled his pipe.

Carmichael followed this gift with many questions about wines and vintages; and hidden in these questions were a dozen clever traps. But the other walked over them, unhesitant, with a certainty of step which chagrined the trapper.

By and by the vintner rose and bade his table-companion a good night. He had not offered to buy anything, another sign puzzling to Carmichael. This frugality was purely of the thrifty peasant. But the vintner was not ungrateful, and he expressed many thanks. On his way to the door he stopped, whispered into Gretchen's ear, and passed out into the black street.

"Either he is a fine actor, or he is really what he says he is." Carmichael was dissatisfied. "I'll stake my chances on being president of the United States, which is safe enough as a wager, that this fellow is not genuine. I'll watch him. I've stumbled upon a pretty romance of some sort, but I fear that it is one-sided." He wrinkled his forehead, but that part of his recollection he aimed to stir remained fallow, in darkness.

The press in the room was thinning. There were vacant chairs here and there now. A carter sauntered past and sat down unconcernedly at the table occupied by the old man whose face Carmichael had not yet seen. The two exchanged not even so much as a casual nod. A little later a butcher approached the same table and seated himself after the manner of the carter. It was only when the dusty baker came along and repeated this procedure, preserving the same silence, that Carmichael's curiosity was enlivened. This curiosity, however, was only of the evanescent order. Undoubtedly they were socialists and this was a little conclave, and the peculiar manner of their meeting, the silence and mystery, were purely fictional. Socialism at that time revolved round the blowing up of kings, of demolishing established order. Neither kings were blown up nor order demolished, but it was a congenial topic over which to while away an evening. This was in the German states; in Russia it was a different matter.

Had Carmichael not fallen a-dreaming over his pipe he would have seen the old man pass three slips of paper across the table; he would have seen the carter, the butcher, and the baker pocket these slips stolidly; he would have seen the mountaineer wave his hand sharply and the trio rise and disperse. And perhaps it would have been well for him to have noted these singular manifestations of conspiracy, since shortly he was to become somewhat involved. It was growing late; so Carmichael left the Black Eagle, nursing the sunken ember in his pipe and surrendering no part of his dream.

Intermediately the mountaineer paid his score and started for the stairs which led to the bedrooms above. But he stopped at the bar. A very old man was having a pail filled with hot cabbage soup. It was the ancient clock-mender across the way. The mountaineer was startled out of his habitual reserve, but he recovered his composure almost instantly. The clock-mender, his heavy glasses hanging crookedly on his nose, his whole aspect that of a weary, broken man, took down his pail and shuffled noiselessly out. The mountaineer followed him cautiously. Once in his shop the clock-mender poured the steaming soup into a bowl, broke bread in it, and began his evening meal. The other, his face pressed against the dim pane, stared and stared.

"Gott in Himmel! It is he!" he breathed, then stepped back into the shadow, while the moisture from his breath slowly faded and disappeared from the window-pane.

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